Andy Kirkpatrick's climbing tips
- Monday 4th May 2020
Espen Fadnes keeping warm in Queen Maud Land. © Andy Kirkpatrick
Based on three decades of climbing obsession, Andy Kirkpatrick’s indispensable 1001 Climbing Tips provides essential advice gleaned from nineteen ascents of El Cap and trips to the polar ice caps. Topics include training, diet, big walls, mountain survival, ice, mixed and a peppering of ‘esoterica’.
Below we've selected a range of Andy's most useful tips for when you're out in the mountains.
5. A week of good instruction is worth a year of getting it wrong.
24. When tying in, treat your partner like a complete idiot, and check they have tied in properly. This is the approach used in skydiving and scuba diving, so why not climbing? Also tell them to treat you as a fool too, although saying so will mean you’re not.
45. The two most destructive things you can do to a rope are top roping and jumaring – that is if you’re a fool! Always extend a top-rope anchor over an edge, and don’t bounce and struggle when jumaring. Both of these will cause the rope to rub and abrade – and if you’re unlucky it may even snap.
167. On long multi-day climbs, always carry a spare, basic belay device. It will weigh very little, but if you lose a belay device it will be a real lifesaver, both for ascent and descent.
241. In almost all situations, the first thing you should put on is your helmet, especially when you’re approaching your route via tricky ground or where there could be rockfall. Having your head smashed in while a helmet is clipped to your pack would be very sad indeed.
251. On multi-pitch abseils, make one person the leader. This person fixes every belay and carries all the rack and the best head torch. By having one person do the whole descent setup, everyone gets into a rhythm and sticks to one system. Also, on difficult descents, the leader will get a feel for how the terrain will unfold, where anchors will be best built, etc. The leader should also have two mini ascenders (Tibloc, Ropeman etc.), if available, so they can climb back up the rope if needed.
264. If your ropes are different diameters, then it’s worth noting that a skinny rope will pull through a belay much easier than a thick one – important on full-length raps – while a heavier rope will fall straighter if it’s windy. If it’s super windy, then lower the leader on both strands using your belay device or a Munter hitch. When rapping into steep and unknown terrain where the leader may need to jug back up – maybe a few metres to a potential anchor they have rapped past, or all the way back to the belay – tie off both ropes with a figure-of eight (one on each strand, as this reduces twists compared to tying both together, and they are easier to deal with). This will allow the leader to jumar on either rope. Once they have an anchor, untie the knots so they can do a ‘test pull’.
294. When a leader screams ‘rock!’ don’t do what most novices do – look up to see if they’re going to be hit. It’s either going to hit you or it isn’t, but being hit in the face is much worse than on the top of your head when you have a helmet on. When you hear ‘rock!’, press yourself against the rock and get as much of your body under your helmet as possible.
335. If you’re tackling big walls, learn how to use cam hooks, as these bent pieces of steel take the sting out of many pitches that would have once required many peg placements, saving time and gear. The Nipple pitch on Zodiac is a prime example; a pitch that once required several Lost Arrows in a row, hammered upwards into a roof crack. Now you just leapfrog two cam hooks along and do in a few minutes what once would have taken an hour.
357. Use an alpine butterfly knot to attach your haul line to your bags, so it can be untied no matter how loaded and tight it becomes.
388. Don’t just think of an early start as meaning 5 a.m., as an early start can actually be as late as 7 p.m. – only the day before. If you’re fit and psyched, then starting in the evening and climbing through the night will put you halfway up a route in the morning, and ideally at the top long before it gets dark. Often, when you start in the dark and it gets dark again, you really hit a bit of a wall.
387. The art of climbing a big route in a single push is to know how to spread the team’s energy over the whole route. This generally means going steady to begin with, then speeding things up as you get into the groove, leaving time to finish the route in the dark – or in the light if you’re fast.
435. Keep your picks sharp, and always have a file when away. (I use a tiny, flat precision file snapped in half, so it’s only 2 inches long.) On some big, hard routes you may need to file the pick mid-route.
436. Ice climbing is primarily all about your footwork, and how much you trust your crampons – even though it will feel like it’s all about your arms. It’s worth top-roping an off-vertical route just using your hands and crampons to build up your confidence in your feet, and to see what they can do.
445. When rapping or moving with my axes clipped to my harness, I generally attach them with a locker as they have a tendency to unclip themselves from karabiners.
460. When leading, try and keep a positive attitude and verbalise this. When you get a solid stick, say ‘train stopper’, and keep your belayer up to speed. Avoid any negative language or thoughts. Often, if you climb with a novice who’s a bit gripped, you climb better because you have to be positive on their behalf, while in a more balanced team you can just be relaxed. Look at the best climbers when they’re climbing – they tend to have a very positive attitude.
484. Anything can be torqued in a crack and the trick is to be creative. This includes the pick, adze, hammer and shaft. Like a rock-climber who knows their rack, you need to view your axe like an aid rack, weighing up what bit will fit, where and how.
485. When you apply a torque, you have a narrow spectrum of effectiveness that goes from breaking the tool to the tool no longer applying enough force to stay locked in. In the middle of this spectrum is the ‘perfect torque’. When you get that perfect torque, you must try and maintain it through the range of motion needed to get the next torque, which is basically the most important skill needed for hard winter climbing – well, in the UK anyway!
488. When hooking small, flat holds, it’s vital that once you have a hook you’re happy with, you do not change the angle or position of your pull or your pick. If you do, you stand a very good chance that it will rip. The best way to do this is to follow a great tip from Will Gadd, who said you should imagine that you’ve got a cup of coffee balanced on the head of your axe, and when you move you mustn’t spill a drop.
503. A lot of climbers talk about having a sensitive boot, and much is made of this in boot ads, but personally I’m more interested in how solid and how warm I feel in my boots. This means I tend to wear big boots like Sportiva Spantiks as I like being able to stand on a small hold for a long time. Some people take this to extremes and actually wear ski mountaineering boots. Also, no one climbs well when their toes are frozen. The one exception to this, and perhaps where this has come from, is super-athletic winter climbing, where you’re mainly dangling from your axes on steep ground. Here, weight is crucial, but on slabs and faces, being able to stand your ground is way more important.
545. If you’re bringing a full Nalgene bottle into your sleeping bag anyway, then if you boil the water first it will raise the temperature of your bag greatly, helping to kick-start the bag’s insulation. Place it between your legs as this is where your two major arteries run, and this should warm you up pretty well.
600. When navigation is tough and every cell of your body is screaming for you to just ‘get out of here’ – take a deep breath and follow the Kama Sutra: ‘whatever you’re doing, do it at half the speed’.
656. It took me many years to understand that eating every four hours was the best way to maintain performance and avoid hitting a wall. Taking breakfast at 5 a.m. and then eating nothing until a packet of noodles at 10 p.m. is not conducive to good sports performance.
688. I spent five days on the Eiger attempting the Russian route in the winter of 2013 as a team of three. We had two titanium cups and one large measuring jug and at the end of the day we would elect the ‘man of the day’, and they would have the jug for tea and breakfast. I know that although it was bigger, the jug only held the same amount of tea as the smaller cups, but it always seemed to raise morale. What’s this got to do with food? Nothing, but never lose sight of the positive psychological role that food and drink plays in a team, instead of focusing only on the raw maths of the calories.
804. Very often, before a hard climb or a crux pitch, you’ll feel anxiety in the pit of your stomach, a feeling that makes you want to give in before you’ve even tried. These are very important moments in any venture, as it’s here that you’ll probably fail or let someone else take over. Instead of letting this feeling of deep dread and terror take over, flip the feeling and think of it as excitement – after all, isn’t it exciting?
822. Keep all strength sessions under an hour, with 45 minutes being the optimum. If you’re training hard, anything beyond that will have limited results. Just warm up, then hit half a dozen exercises super hard and finish with some stabilising exercises. If you add warming up and warming down, no gym visit should last more than 90 minutes. It’s about quality, not quantity.
832. When you’ve finished, don’t forget to warm down and stretch, as this will remove toxins from your muscles and will prevent injuries and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
853. A favourite lunch is just grated carrot, a tin of tuna, small tomatoes and some decent salad dressing. Cheap, quick, tasty and filling. You can also make an Argentinean staple: just boil some eggs, add grated carrot and some dressing. Don’t be afraid of fat – it’s not fat that got you into the state you find yourself. Instead, be aware of simple carbs and steer clear of rice, pasta and bread as much as you can.
887. Make it fun. Or as fun as you can make it.
886. Leave climbing behind now and again. Try something new, like kayaking, mountain biking or swinging. Sometimes it’s good to be a novice, to remember how to learn new things.
889. Toast failure, because success brings its own rewards. Failing goes hand in hand with doing anything worthwhile, and it can be almost as rewarding. So when you get down safe, acknowledge what you’ve tried to do and learn from it.
890. Seize opportunities. Kurt Vonnegut once said ‘peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God’. Embrace any opportunity that comes your way or which you can manufacture, and try not to let work, money or time get in the way of gold medal moments all the time.